BlackBerry: Too Long on the Vine?

The granddaddy of mobile e-mail devices still performs its founding function with ease, but in other respects, it's showing its age

By Steve Rosenbush

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good Does a great job of managing corporate e-mail for mobile workers

The Bad The phone is an afterthought, no memory card slot

The Bottom Line Excellent choice for people who only care about e-mail in a mobile device

Note: This is the first in a series of smart-phone reviews.

Research in Motion's BlackBerry achieved a breakthrough in mobile communications in the late '90s. The pocket-size device, with its generous screen and tiny but functional QWERTY keypad, was the first to let people send and receive corporate e-mail on the fly. Thanks to RIM (RIMM ), 2.5 million people around the globe are now connected to their corporate enterprise e-mail servers, 24 hours a day.

The BlackBerry has become standard-issue equipment in many sectors of business and finance. While some folks view it as an electronic leash that keeps them tethered to work, I find that the opposite is true. Tracking corporate e-mail from outside the office gives me more control over my workflow, and that eases anxiety and stress. And being able to observe the corporate bubble from afar can be a thrill.

BlackBerry no longer has the market to itself, though. It faces competition from other handheld devices and cell phones.


  I wanted to know how well the pioneer of mobile e-mail has held up in the new environment, so I took a look at its newer offerings. Over the last year, BlackBerry has introduced smaller devices in phone-like forms, which have cell-phone-like keypads instead of the QWERTY layout. But I wanted a model that was designed with e-mail in mind first and foremost, with the ability to edit documents created in Microsoft's (MSFT ) Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

The BlackBerry 7290 fit the bill, a handheld device with a relatively large screen that can cost as little as $349 from T-Mobile, but service charges for voice and data plans are extra. Comparable devices with different model numbers are available from other carriers. For example, Verizon Wireless sells a similar model called the 7250.

The 7290 handles e-mail quite well. By connecting to a corporate server, it allows workers to send, receive, and manage their mail in real time. No need to synch the device with a desktop computer. The e-mail comes and goes miraculously through the wireless network. Even contacts and calendar items are automatically updated without placing the device in a cradle and connecting it to a computer.

The process, known as "push e-mail," is amazing. The 7290 and its siblings also add more memory and wireless Bluetooth connectivity for devices such as headsets (see BW Online, 4/28/05, "Bluetooth: Dangerous Waves?").


  The businessperson's love affair with the BlackBerry began several years ago, when it had little to no competition in the push e-mail market. Now that other devices, such as PalmOne's (PLMO ) Treo 650, have come along, it's fair to ask whether BlackBerry still offers the best value.

The device itself is nicely sculpted. The cool blue plastic frame rests nicely in the hand. It's lightweight, but feels durable and substantial just the same. The tiny keyboard is surprisingly easy to use. And the track wheel, mounted on the side of the device, allows users to flip through their e-mail with one hand while holding a bag of groceries or briefcase with the other. The ergonomics of the BlackBerry track wheel are superior to the navigational tools on other handheld devices.

For all of its incredible strengths, however, I think the BlackBerry is beginning to show its age. The 7290's screen is a huge weakness. In an era when $50 cell phones have crisp, clear color screens, the 7290's fuzzy, dim display is simply unacceptable. Users who want a brighter screen might prefer the phone-like BlackBerry 7100 for $199. But it has a narrower display and an unusual keyboard layout, with several characters sharing keys.

The fact that RIM is licensing its software to other hardware manufacturers, including Nokia (NOK ), could be seen as a tacit admission that its own hardware isn't competitive with the best on the market.


  I was also frustrated by the 7290's limited functionality. It's designed with one main purpose in mind: e-mail. There's something to be said for that focused approach, and it's undeniably good at what it does. The device is light and easy to use because it isn't loaded down with too many gadgets and features.

Just the same, I've been using my personal cell phone to take photos and record video and sound clips for several years now, and I just can't go back to a single-purpose device. The 7290's phone just seems half-hearted. It's designed for making calls with a headset, and it's very awkward to use without one.

Given the limitations of the screen, users also won't be eager to use the 7290's Web browser. The device doesn't have a port for memory cards, either. That limits the amount of data to whatever can be crammed onto the internal hard drive. It also limits the number of applications that can be downloaded.


  So about that e-mail: The 7290's software has a unique approach. Other e-mail programs are designed for the desktop, with elaborate folders for incoming mail, sent items, and the like. BlackBerry dumps all of the user's messages into a single box. Incoming and outgoing e-mail, voice mail and text messages, and more flow into the same list in chronological order.

It seems strange at first to see all variety of messages in a single mailbox. But the system has a strategy. It's quicker and easy to use than other mobile e-mail platforms that emulate the experience of working on a full-size computer. If you value the ability to navigate through your e-mail with one hand while you're on the go, you'll like BlackBerry.

Personally, I'm willing to accept a somewhat more complicated folder-based e-mail system that allows me to file and organize as well as read my e-mail on the run. But the BlackBerry system is well thought out. I understand the rationale behind it, and many people may well prefer it.


  Overall, the BlackBerry 7290 remains a good piece of technology. It's intelligently designed -- highly focused and functional and most important, it's easy to use. If all the technology in our lives worked this well, we would be pretty lucky.

But it's certainly not the sexiest device on the market. And even its approach to corporate e-mail is under attack by the likes of PalmOne and Microsoft (MSFT ). In this competitive market, good may no longer be good enough.

Rosenbush is a senior writer for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Tomorrow, he reviews PalmOne's Treo 650

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.